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UNHCR uses cinema to spread awareness of sexual violence

News Stories, 30 July 2009

© UNHCR/S.Schulman
Women at a settlement in Katanga province, where UNHCR has been raising awareness about sexual violence.

MOBA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, July 30 (UNHCR) The cinema has come to this corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for a couple of weeks, and locals are turning up in their droves to watch the nightly fare screened by the UN refugee agency.

The film they come to see has violence, drama, love and humour, but it is no Hollywood blockbuster. "Breaking the Silence" is about sexual violence and abuse of women major problems in parts of eastern and south-eastern DRC, including South Kivu and Katanga provinces. Forcibly displaced women and girls are particularly vulnerable to abuse, and these are areas of high refugee return.

The film, which is aimed at combatting and raising awareness about the scourge, tells the stories of Congolese women and girls who have been raped, and of the physical and psychological scars they have suffered. The audience also hears from the men in their lives, husbands and fathers, who express emotions ranging from shame to depression.

"Breaking the Silence," which was produced by IF Productions of the Netherlands, also shows the challenges and difficulties that victims and their families face when seeking access to justice, despite the fact that a new national law on sexual violence was passed more than two years ago. Impunity remains a problem.

The mobile cinema is being organized by UNHCR implementing partner, Search for Common Ground (SFCG), a United States-based non-governmental organization that specializes in conflict resolution and conflict prevention. The cinema came to Katanga province last week after touring villages and towns in neighbouring South Kivu province, where an estimated 200,000 people saw the feature.

The first open-air showing of the film in Katanga was at the Mulolwa Stadium in Moba, a town on the west shore of Lake Tanganyika. An estimated 5,000 people, including UNHCR staff, attended the screening. A generator was used to power the projector.

The audience seemed rivetted by a film that explores a subject few people talk about openly here. There were moments of total silence during moving or shocking testimonies and outbreaks of laughter in lighter moments. Many people told UNHCR they were very impressed by the film and praised its educational value.

"These screenings stir people to examine the heavy burden weighing on the minds of the victims, call on perpetrators to end such practices, and urge the authorities to apply the law in an impartial manner," said one woman.

"The film also shows how men are affected by the rape of their wives and daughters. It's important that they be counselled too," added a young man. The mobile cinema will continue to tour the province until next Wednesday, helping to raise awareness about sexual violence among tens of thousands of people who normally have no access to audiovisual media.

Lena Slachmuijlder, head of SFCG's office in the DRC, explained why the programme was attracting so many people. "Mobile cinema is attention-grabbing and attractive, especially in areas like Moba where the people have few opportunities to watch television or films. The moving image is a particularly appropriate tool for tackling the taboos, stereotypes and general confusion surrounding the very definition of what constitutes rape," she said.

Assessments conducted after the screenings of "Breaking the Silence" in South Kivu indicate some improvement in the way men regard and treat women there as well as greater sympathy and understanding for the plight of victims of sexual violence.

According to United Nations figures, almost 3,500 women were raped by militiamen, soldiers or civilians in the eastern DRC in the first half of this year. "Given the taboo and stigma surrounding the issue, there are probably many other women who lacked the courage or the opportunity to report their rape," noted Barry Moon, head of the UNHCR office in Moba.




How UNHCR Helps Women

By ensuring participation in decision-making and strengthening their self-reliance.

UNHCR's Dialogues with Refugee Women

Progress report on implementation of recommendations.


Women and girls can be especially vulnerable to abuse in mass displacement situations.

Guidelines for Gender-based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings

Published by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), September 2005

Women in Exile

In any displaced population, approximately 50 percent of the uprooted people are women and girls. Stripped of the protection of their homes, their government and sometimes their family structure, females are particularly vulnerable. They face the rigours of long journeys into exile, official harassment or indifference and frequent sexual abuse, even after reaching an apparent place of safety. Women must cope with these threats while being nurse, teacher, breadwinner and physical protector of their families. In the last few years, UNHCR has developed a series of special programmes to ensure women have equal access to protection, basic goods and services as they attempt to rebuild their lives.

On International Women's Day UNHCR highlights, through images from around the world, the difficulties faced by displaced women, along with their strength and resilience.

Women in Exile

Refugee Women

Women and girls make up about 50 percent of the world's refugee population, and they are clearly the most vulnerable. At the same time, it is the women who carry out the crucial tasks in refugee camps – caring for their children, participating in self-development projects, and keeping their uprooted families together.

To honour them and to draw attention to their plight, the High Commissioner for Refugees decided to dedicate World Refugee Day on June 20, 2002, to women refugees.

The photographs in this gallery show some of the many roles uprooted women play around the world. They vividly portray a wide range of emotions, from the determination of Macedonian mothers taking their children home from Kosovo and the hope of Sierra Leonean girls in a Guinean camp, to the tears of joy from two reunited sisters. Most importantly, they bring to life the tremendous human dignity and courage of women refugees even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Refugee Women

Statelessness and Women

Statelessness can arise when citizenship laws do not treat men and women equally. Statelessness bars people from rights that most people take for granted such as getting a job, buying a house, travelling, opening a bank account, getting an education, accessing health care. It can even lead to detention.

In some countries, nationality laws do not allow mothers to confer nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers and this creates the risk that these children will be left stateless. In others, women cannot acquire, change or retain their nationality on an equal basis as men. More than 40 countries still discriminate against women with respect to these elements.

Fortunately, there is a growing trend for states to remedy gender discrimination in their nationality laws, as a result of developments in international human rights law and helped by vigorous advocacy from women's rights groups. The women and children depicted here have faced problems over nationality.

Statelessness and Women

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